At a very young age, I was told that I should pursue a career in sales. I heard it in high school, again in college and, yet again, post-graduation.
Perhaps people told you as well that you had what it takes to be a great salesperson.
Yet, why did people tell us that we should pursue a sales career? There was one reason: We were great talkers!
People not in the sales profession think that “talking” is the key to sales success. Certainly, being articulate is an ingredient in the sales success recipe, but that is not the one thing that makes someone a sales rock star.
Those of us within the profession know that what you say to a prospect is not the secret to winning in sales. Instead, many people within the profession think the leading sales success factor is listening.
I constantly hear sales managers preaching the importance of “listening skills” to their salespeople. Listening is also an ingredient in the sales success recipe, but still, there is one skill that is even more important to master.
The most critical skill
I regularly ask salespeople this question: Who knows more about the universe of solutions available to a buyer: them or their buyers? Without blinking an eye, they say they have a greater, broader expertise in this than their buyers. This holds true even for those buyers with titles like CEO, CFO, president or COO.
Despite those high-level titles and roles, they usually do not possess the same level of knowledge in the universe of solutions than those salespeople calling on them do. They have an expertise in their respective roles, but not in every product or service they procure.
Try “telling” these executives, and you’re in for a very short meeting. “Listening” won’t get you shown the door, but if buyers don’t know all of the options available (improved performance, cost reduction, supplier reduction, etc.), for what information will you listen?
Top salespeople and sales managers know that the No. 1, most-critical skill leading to sales success is the art of query: asking questions of buyers that help them think differently about the solutions they have or could have. Listening is very important, but the right questions need to be asked so there is pertinent information to be heard. This is the information that helps a salesperson construct a sale — to build a solution for a buyer.
Planning your questions
I’ve found that most salespeople when it comes to pre-call planning, focus their time on what they are going to say to a buyer: “I’m going to tell them about this product/service.” Others pepper data-collection questions into their meeting planner: “How many of these do you use?”
Of course, most salespeople plan to inquire about opportunities for improvement: “What is one thing you would like to have better than you have today?”
An effective pre-call planning exercise includes outlining both what you will say and ask, but the art of query necessitates another type of question: positioning questions. Positioning questions are open-ended (non-yes/no) and help buyers think differently about the solutions they have or could have.
Challenge questions expose areas that the buyer perceives can be better or different than what they have today. However, if you agree with my premise that salespeople are more well-versed in solution options than buyers, there is a missing question-type in these prospect meetings.
Positioning questions expose areas that a buyer does not perceive could be better or different. Buyers look at the product or service they have and accept performance as “industry standard.” What if you possess differentiators that can disrupt their status quo perception?
For example, what if you have the differentiated ability to improve speed/quality or reduce costs to create a superior solution than a buyer has today? Challenge questions will not bring that conversation to the forefront because the buyers don’t know it could be better or different. Lecturing them on the differentiation, without first gaining interest in having the conversation, fails to engage them.
As part of pre-call planning, craft positioning questions that expose interest in the aspects that differentiate your business. These questions help your buyers think differently about the solution they have or could have and disrupt the status quo.
It’s not what salespeople say to a buyer, but rather what they ask of a buyer, that makes them stand out from the competition.